The Zarah Gagatiga interview: Part 1 – Librarian

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On August - 4 - 2010

There are few librarians more prominent in the country today than Zarah Gagatiga–and yet “librarian” is but one of the many different hats she wears. Influential blogger, avid storyteller, and chair of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People, she is one of the staunchest advocates for books and literacy in the Philippines. Zarah graciously took time out from her busy schedule to respond to some questions via email, which we’ve divided into three parts, each focusing on a different role she plays. Today we speak to her about her work with libraries, both as a librarian and as an advocate.


You’ve stated before that you became a librarian in part because your mom was a librarian. What was it like, having a mother with the “keys to the kingdom”, so to speak? I bet you never ran out of books to read.

Yes, I never ran out of them. Nor will I run from them. Never :-)

The earliest memory I have of a book my mom brought me was a storybook about a red fox and a hen. It was not Henny Penny, it was one of those American books with thick pages that smelled of dried animal skin. And the illustrations! I remember that the book was classically beautiful. Then came Dr. Seuss and Robert Palmer. She brought home some non-fiction books as well. I can still remember the big dinosaur books she borrowed when I was in 1st grade. At the time, I was studying in a small town parish school, and books were scarce. We had a library but students would only get to go there four times a year, imagine that. My mom filled the gap.

She was my first reading teacher; my first teacher-librarian. She knew which book to give me, she knew which book would appeal to me, although she also brought books that she knew I might not like. She did this until I was old enough to have my own allowance, save up and buy my own books :-) Once, I asked her for a Judy Blume book, Forever. I wanted her to borrow the book for me. Blume was my hero during my teenage years. (I read all her books, and Tiger Eyes is still my favorite.) My mother told me that Forever was always out of the shelf. I looked in bookstores for a copy. Nada. The Internet was unheard of at that time so there was just no way to get a copy. In 2005, I found one at Powerbooks, bought it and read the book like there was no tomorrow. After reading it, I knew why my mother never borrowed it for me, and I was glad I got to read the book at a time when I myself had already become a mother :-)

I have so many wonderful stories of my mom and the books she borrowed from the library (you should hear the one about Jose Aruego), but this is getting soooo long!

To cut this short, let’s just say that it was from my mother that I learned of a great many authors and characters: Jose Aruego; Maurice Sendak; Beverly Cleary; Encyclopedia Brown; Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys; RL Stevenson; Cristina Rosetti; Judy Blume; Richard Peck; SE Hinton; Jo March; Le Guin and L’ Engle; Asimov and Bradburry; Katherine Patterson; Judy Voight and many more US and British writers. She introduced me to Caldecott and Newberry; the Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams series. (Yes, these are mostly foreign works. I only truly  began to read and appreciate Philippine Children’s Literature in the late 90’s.)

This lead me to further discoveries as an adult: Asch, Kimmel, Shannon, Demi, The Lobels, Lionni, Carl, Dahl, Gaiman, Tolkien, Rowling, Funke, Riordan, Stroud, Ibbotson and that handsome writer of The Book Theif, Marcus Zusak. Right now, I’m so into Suzzane Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy that I even own a Team Peeta shirt.

Take note: My mom rarely bought me books. She borrowed them from the library where she worked.

There have been some concerns that with the Internet and all the other sources of information available, that reading is on the decline, especially among children. Has that been your experience?

No. We read in many ways and there are many ways to read. Children need to be taught how to be better readers in this age of I.T. Reading on the Internet is different from reading print. Kids should be given opportunities to learn the difference.

Why are libraries so important, even in the age of the Internet, Google, and Wikipedia?

A library is a culture, a way of life. It is not merely a room full of books.

You’ve spoken about library automation before. In what ways can technology help, instead of supplant, libraries?

Technology can help facilitate the fast and easy access of books and information. It can help in the preservation of books and rare, archival materials. It provides librarians with tools and skills that can be used to collect and gather online resources never before culled and indexed. With technology, librarians can create content to add to the library collection via a virtual format. Why would technology supplant libraries when it should be a part of libraries?

You’ve posted before about the need for trained librarians in schools. What do you think is the role of libraries and librarian’s in our school system? In the larger society?

First of all, look at a library and its function in a school. I always say this in my workshops involving school libraries and librarians: the library is an extension of the classroom. What is taught and learned in the classroom must be applied in real life.

Using the library is part of real life, and as such, librarians help prepare children for real life. One may see a librarian as a custodian of books and learning materials, but these materials are in an environment where independent learning occurs. A library is organized in such a way that information can be easily located, acquired, evaluated and used. There are how-to manuals; reader’s guides; indexes and online catalogs; even events that enrich and encourage literacy.

Trained librarians are essential to any library. Librarians are teachers as well, instructing via direct and indirect teaching. Librarians can design learning modules and packages. Students of library and information science learn about Information Literacy and how this can improve library reader’s services and library skills instruction–I had to attend several Information Literacy Skills training and workshops abroad to translate this new theory in practice. Why would the government approve the professionalization (it’s mandated by law) of librarians in the first place if their contribution to the larger society was null?

College and university libraries also function as learning centers, and librarians play a key role. To be an academic or university librarian, a librarian in such a library must have completed graduate studies, plus, the professional license requirement.

Public libraries function the same way. In fact, they belong to the government’s social services and public awareness arm. Imagine what it would be like to have public libraries in every city or town which would cater to impoverished groups in the community? Children, teens, adults and senior citizens could become part of the captive audience of a public library. As feeding centers and health centers in the barangay are essential, so too are libraries! Sadly, public library system in the country is close to dead.

What can people do to help our libraries?

Use the resources and services offered by libraries. If there are no libraries in the school or in the community, help set up one–it’s a little known fact that the setting up of barangay reading centers is required under law (Republic Act No. 7743). Instead, what do SK councils do? Sports Fests. Beauty Contests. Song and dance competitions. There are very few barangay officers who set up libraries.

A library is a culture. Collectively speaking, we do not have a book and reading culture. We have not, as a nation and as a people, leveled up to the idea of an enlightened poverty or the dignified poor, a culture where even if I only have lugaw for breakfast, tuyo for lunch and boiled kamote tops and bagoong for supper, where even if I only wear slippers to school and my one good pair of pants is patched all over, that’s OK because I go to school and I have good books to read, and I can understand why Jose Rizal resorted to the printed word.

The thing is, the importance of going to the library, of writing and reading books, these are paradigms that haven’t taken root here. The ADB has stopped supporting education and literacy efforts because these do not seem to be priotiries in our country. They no longer give grants to such initiatives. Another international foundation I know does not support library development in third world countries, because they say it just won’t work.

What does this tell us? We need to contextualize library use, book making and book reading based on the Filipino psyche and culture. Now, how can this be done? I do not know. I do, however, think that a stronger political will among library organizations in the Philippines would be one of the many factors needed to create a more visible and functional library system.

What do you enjoy the most about your job as a librarian?

I enjoy the challenges of the job –  from dealing with how people perceive librarians, to the nitty-gritty stuff of organizing a functional library. I have had my share of failures, but I learn new things in the process. and it is the process that takes precedence over the product. Library work is process oriented. It is made up of systems and structures.

You’ve been to a lot of libraries–which in your experience is the best, here and/or abroad?

The best type of library is the one that is personally owned. :-)

[Image source: School Librarian in Action. Copyright holder/s maintain appropriate rights.]

3 Responses to “The Zarah Gagatiga interview: Part 1 – Librarian”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paolo Chikiamco, Chachic and Rocket Kapre , Philippine Culture. Philippine Culture said: [Philippine Culture] Rocket Kapre – Fantastic Filipino Speculative Fiction » The Zarah …: We need to contextuali… [...]

  2. zarah_g says:

    paolo – thanks so much for this! more power to you and on what you do best! LUCEAT LUX!

  3. I loved the line that said, “Library is a culture.” Its so true. I also like your story. its pretty cool. As Zarah_g said, more power to you. Good luck.

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